I’ve been indenting to write a series of posts about the persuasive myths about mental illness in film and television media. As someone who has suffered from depression and has social anxiety disorder, I have wanted to be more open about my own illness in hopes it will do some tiny part to combat the stigma that is still attached to a rather common and potentially dangerous medical condition. I think the previous drafts for the posts in this series I attempted to write were far too ambitious and wide-ranging . As usual, looking at specific text is probably the more effective way to go about this. For this post I will look at the two most recent episodes of Homeland. As a disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. I am just conveying my own personal experience. One of the key points about mental illness that is often misunderstood is that they are complicated, vary by degrees, are comorbid (this will also be the topic of some post at some point), and are different for everybody, so something I may have experienced as true or faithful may not have been the case for another person.
This season of Homeland, the once lauded now frequently hate-watched Showtime drama, had the unenviable task to trying to recover from the disaster that was it’s 3rd season: one which decided the best way to counter it’s last bits of credible realism was with some of the most depressing television ever made (I shouldn’t only blame season 3. The show actually started careening into terribleness along with Dana Brody’s driving at the end of it’s finest episode midway through season 2). Season 4 is off to a good start, mostly by repeating successful elements of the formula of the first season: Carrie gets too involved with a person she is supposed to be watching, as well as making the focus of this season America’s drone war in Pakistan. While the reboot of the show has been critically well-received (and finally good television again). But for me, the most important reboot has been the return of Carrie’s bipolar disorder.
Carrie Mathison’s bipolar disorder was, along with the rather complex depiction of surveillance, the most initially interesting thing about Homeland. There had been a few characters on television before who had mental disorders and were successful in their professions. Monk was perhaps the most notable, but his OCD was presented, like everything in that show, in a genial manner. Carrie, largely through Claire Dane’s performance, was perhaps the first truly complex character on television to have a mental disorder. She was presented as a productive CIA agent, but her issues weren’t presented as cute eccentricities: she engaged in self-destructive and potentially disastrous sexual liaisons, and self medicated to the point of being a functional alcoholic.
The show also avoids a simplistic portrayal that bought into one of the common myths about mental disorders: the tortured genius, a myth that suggests that mental illness either enhances or is a hallmark of genius, particularly of the artistic kind. She is a brilliant thinker, perhaps the CIA’s best analyst, and while the ability to think outside the box may have been due to her own ability to live with being bipolar, it wasn’t suggested that she was a genius because of the illness. This myth may seem like a positive stereotype, and it may be substantiated by lots of anecdotal evidence. However, there is a dangerous assumption at its core: if genius is tied to mental illness, than treatments for that mental illness would also inhibit genius. The implications would then be “if I take my meds I won’t be creative anymore,” or “I’ll just suffer for the sake of creativity.”
Carrie Mathison is talented, but not because of her mental illness or even in spite of it. She is talented analyst, who has an illness. Perhaps the most realistic portrayal of mental illness that I’ve ever seen is in the season 1 episode “The Vest.” Carrie has been off her medications out of fear that the CIA will discover that she is bipolar and will lose her job. She is under intense stress from the Brody investigation, and physical stress after being injured in an explosion. She is not sleeping. Season 1 had a lot of bulletin board timelines. I’m not sure if people actually make these, or if they’re a device to visualize characters’ thought processes in movies and TV. But this was the episode where Carrie, standing in front of her timeline, in the midst of a Bipolar episode, thinks she has figured out the case in a wide-ranging conspiracy. At one point in the series she talks about a similar episode in college in which she was certain she had discovered a radical new kind of jazz music. The difference between internal expectation and lived reality is akin to this Family Guy clip, and both epiphanies were failures. This hit home for me. In my experience, I was not, as the myth would suggest, more creative when I was in the midst of a depressive episode. I may have thought I was being creative, but in revisiting what I wrote it was a jumbled mess. The point of this is to show that like myself, Carrie’s genius was not a result of the mental illness, and that medication didn’t inhibit her brilliance; rather it allowed her to function.
But there was a problem. At the end of the 1st Season Carrie undergoes shock treatment.
This may be a reality for some people with Bipolar, though it’s not nearly as prevalent a treatment as it once was. But the show, at least for the next two seasons, would use this as some sort of Deus Ex Machina to avoid having to talk about her bipolar disorder. Sure, in season 3’s most ridiculous set-up, Carrie pretends, or at least makes herself crazy to draw out an Iranian agent, but we no longer see Carrie’s self-medication, any treatments, or trying to hide her illness for fear of losing her job.
But, thankfully, Carrie’s Bipolar disorder has returned in an important plot-line for this season. While serving as a Station Chief in Pakistan, a mole replaces Carrie’s medications. And at a crucial point in the show Carrie has a breakdown. This may seem like a potentially dangerous development, to suggest that this is Carrie’s Achilles’ Heel; that people with mental illness are weak, particularly those are on medication. But instead, I found this a refreshing and realistic portrayal of a very real aspect of living with a mental disorder.
If you have a mental disorder you realize very quickly that a big part of the experience is trial and error with different medications and dosages. It took me years to find the right combination; you’d be surprised how imprecise the whole thing can be at times. Peter Quinn, who has become the moral center of the show, and a character who also suffers from PTSD and binge drinks to self-medicate, makes an interesting implication in his word choice describing what happened to Carrie: “they poisoned you.” What Quinn notes is that these medications, especially in Carries’ case an antipsychotic, are extremely potent. And in this case, the absence of one of them, to Carrie, just as the absence of medication for any illness, resulted in the same effect as being poisoned. In season 1, we learn that Carrie is on Clozapine, which has all sorts of potential adverse effects. And at times these same side effects can show up during withdrawals. For years, I was on Clonzepam which is a similarly named drug but from a totally different family of medications (seriously, why are drugs so similarly named?) for my anxiety. It helped, but it’s a nasty drug. When I got off of it, and the thing about changing medications is that you can’t just automatically get off one and onto another, I had all sorts of issues. Once, I couldn’t get a refill over a weekend so by Sunday I was throwing up and having full on fever and body aches. As a plus side, I guess,while I may be a rather sober Mormon, I now have a richer appreciation for texts like Burrough’s Naked Lunch. The way these episodes portray her withdrawals is actually, from my experience spot on: the shakiness, the changing nature of light, and in particular the near superhuman sensitivity to sound, are all presented here, at least in my experience, rather faithfully to suffering from side-effects of withdrawals or a bad reaction to medication. Now, Carrie does suffer a hallucination in what is perhaps the most ridiculously trolling thing a TV show has ever done to its audience. It was a moment that made me scream “Are you serious?!?!” at TV and nearly give up on the show completely; the revel that she is having a hallucination saves this episode from eclipsing Fonzie on water-skiis as the apex of TV ridiculousness. I am not bipolar so I am not sure if this is a possible result or rather an artistic license, like Jesse’ Meth-related hallucination on an episode Breaking Bad.
For several years, back when I wanted to be a psychologist, I worked in an outpatient psych unit. The biggest issue there, as it seems to be in many cases I am aware of, is that people don’t take their meds. The reasons are often tied to a misunderstanding of mental disorders as illness, or perceived myths about the nature of illnesses and their treatment. I think that in portraying a very real aspect of living with a mental disorder, this Homeland arc is helpful. Carrie, like millions of Americans, has an illness and she needs medication for it. If she doesn’t take it the illness gets worse or goes untreated. Not taking it doesn’t make her any more of a brilliant CIA analyst. Like millions of Americans, taking it doesn’t dull her mental faculties.It may seem like a small detail, but in terms of portraying mental illness in media, Carrie Mathison is revolutionary because she takes her medication.
Likewise, I have seen far too many movies or TV episodes where it portrays a character getting off of their meds as a success. You know, the image where they open the bottles and flush the pills down the toilet (also, don’t do that, you’re poisoning the water supply). It may work for a narrative plot point, but it makes about as much sense as a character with dangerously high cholesterol to throw away his or her cholesterol meds saying, “you know what? I think I’ve really grown as a person over this series of events. I don’t need these anymore.” Just like the person with high cholesterol has to keep taking medications to keep lipid levels at a desirable level to prevent the possibility of a stroke or other damage, it is a reality that some people who have mental illnesses may be on medication for the rest of their lives. It does not at all mean they aren’t healthy, stable, or whole people. It just means that like the patient on cholesterol meds has found a way to reduce what is often a genetically transmitted illness, they have found the right balance of chemicals in their body to treat what is most likely a genetically transmitted illness. Likewise, a patient with the risk of high cholesterol shouldn’t pig out a Golden Corral every night. Likewise, as Homeland correctly demonstrated in Season 1, sleep is probably the single most important element of good mental health. Just like any illness there are certain precautions a person who has it must take to prevent a more serious adverse condition.
It will be interesting to see if Homeland continues to revisit Carries’ disorder. I hope that it does; I think a realistic treatment of mental disorders is the best thing to help reduce the stigma attached to them. A realistic treatment, one in which things like withdrawals happen, will also prevent her disorder from becoming a metaphor. That seems like an obvious nod to Susan Sontag’s work, but that’s a work that’s too flawed and contentious for me to get into, and I’m not talking about illness as societal discourses or mythologies, rather as using Carrie’s illness to make a political statement. What I am cautioning against is the use of Carrie’s bipolar disorder to be construed as a metaphor for the American response to 9/11 and the War on Terror. Another post in this series will mostly likely focus on the myths about the potential causes of mental disorders (we don’t exactly know what causes them but we know what doesn’t and it’s often they very way the media has tried to explain it) but as long as the show presents it as a medical illness, not a condition that extends from the socio-political realms, and spends time with the real-life and rather monotonous issues surrounding mental disorders it should avoid such a danger.